TR: How do you demonstrate that value?
WILLIAMS: There are several ways. One is to provide a vision for what electronics and computing are going to look like in a 10-year time frame. We also act as a technology radar. We often hear about developments before the people in the trenches, and we can alert them that there are interesting opportunities or perhaps threats that are coming along. Also, we’re working on such fundamental issues that if we do succeed the payoff for the company is going to be enormous. And they know it. Every intelligent investment portfolio has a few long shots.
TR: Have things worked out as you expected since starting up the lab?
WILLIAMS: When I came to HP, I had very nebulous ideas about the electronics of the future. Now we have a roadmap. That has been amazing. There are a couple of things that haven’t worked out as I expected. I had hoped to have several joint research projects with the more applied labs. Even though the researchers themselves are interested in working with us and their managers encourage them to do so, when people have deadlines to meet, those collaborations can’t be sustained. Another issue is that we’ve been in competition for funding with a lot of economically crucial projects and so basic research has not grown as fast as was envisioned when I was hired. We’re just starting to grow a little bit.
TR: How well is the high-tech industry doing in carrying out basic research? Is it achieving the right balance of providing for fundamental science while watching out for the bottom line?
WILLIAMS: In general, no. In today’s viciously competitive environment, any high-tech company can go bankrupt within three years-or considerably less with the introduction of Internet time. It’s very difficult to pay attention to the long term, which for the board of directors of some companies is the quarter after next. Even in corporate research labs, the pressure to get better aligned with product divisions, shorten research and development cycles, and fight day-to-day fires has collapsed the view of most managers and researchers to just a few years out.
TR: What does that mean for the computer industry?
WILLIAMS: I think that having a strong basic research component in a corporate laboratory is becoming a strategic advantage. This is especially the case for the high-tech companies that depend on advances in electronics. There will be a huge economic reward for the companies and countries that are successful in harnessing nanometer-scale structures and quantum phenomena for computation, communication and measurement applications. These are all still at the level of basic research, but they will be the foundations of technology long before I am ready to retire. Companies that are not keeping up with the developments will not be able to catch up later. The Fortune 100 will look much different in ten years than it does now, and a significant differentiator will be investments in basic research.
TR: Let’s talk about the future of computing more specifically. You often refer to the limits of silicon-based computing. What are those limits?
WILLIAMS: There are two very different issues facing the semiconductor industry over the next decade. One is economic. The cost of building factories to fabricate each new generation of silicon chip has been increasing by a factor of about two every three years. A $10 billion fabrication plant, or “fab,” is not far off. By 2010 a fab is likely to cost $30 billion. The second issue, which is one of the main reasons for the first, is that silicon-based transistors are starting to experience some fundamental physics and materials limitations as they get smaller and smaller. For example, the number of electrons utilized to switch a field effect transistor-the mainstay of today’s computers-on and off is getting down into the hundreds, and as that gets much lower there will be severe problems with statistical fluctuations that could act to randomly turn it on and off. There are also the issues associated with the physics of traditional lithography [the use of light to etch patterns on silicon chips], such as how to accurately position wafers with a precision of a few nanometers. Each of these problems has a technological fix that can squeeze out one or two more generations of shrinkage, but the fact that so many issues now have to be addressed simultaneously is nearly overwhelming.